Indian Express

Why waves don’t matter

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An astonishing observation from the analysis is that, even during large national waves such as anti-Emergency, Indira Gandhi sympathy or Bofors scandal, the southern states and West Bengal voted as per local trends, throwing up local winners or contradicting national trends. An astonishing observation from the analysis is that, even during large national waves such as anti-Emergency, Indira Gandhi sympathy or Bofors scandal, the southern states and West Bengal voted as per local trends, throwing up local winners or contradicting national trends.

Data analysis for over 40 years shows that national issues or sentiments have a limited impact on votes and seats for a national party.

Amidst the current shrill, acrimonious rhetoric from political parties over a national “Modi wave”, its alleged mythical existence, and accusations of a compromised media in perpetuating it, one would think national waves make or break electoral fortunes in the Lok Sabha (LS) elections. Do national narratives or waves play an important role in determining voter preferences across states? Not really, as this analysis shows. Using the definition of a national wave as “a nationwide sentiment that can work either for or against one national party”, historical electoral data analysis reveals that waves are not probably worth squabbling over. The impact of national sentiment on vote- and seat-share has declined significantly over the last four decades as voting preferences get more local and state-specific. This analysis shows India’s national elections may not be national in its true sense but merely a series of state elections held simultaneously to elect a Central government.

It is worth acknowledging upfront, the usual cynicism about historical data analysis — the past does not predict the future, this time it is different, data does not capture sentiment, and so on. Past data equals actual results and not mere opinions collected through surveys. Historical data reveal broad trends that can be used to contextualise an argument. Thus, if this analysis shows that national waves have a declining impact on vote-share, all it merely does is put in perspective the enormity of the challenge of bucking a 40-year trend. As an ordinary data columnist, it is not my case to opine if it is achievable or not.

For the purposes of this analysis, I identified five “national waves or sentiments” since 1977 and the national party or alliance that was the supposed beneficiary of this wave, as per the prevailing notion then: one,1977: anti-Emergency. Pro-Lok Dal, anti-Congress; two, 1984: Indira Gandhi assassination sympathy wave. Pro-Congress; three: 1989 — Bofors and anti-corruption. Pro-National Front. Anti-Congress; four: 1999 — Vajpayee wave (after the 13 month 1998 Vajpayee government). Pro-BJP; five: 2004 — “India Shining”. Pro-BJP

The 12 largest states in the country account for 81 per cent (440) of all LS seats currently and for 87 per cent (470) of all seats until 1999 (before the partition of big states) So, an analysis of vote-share, seat-share and state-share for the national parties across these 12 states in continued…

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